I am a freak for beschamel. Besciamella, besamel, plain old “white sauce”—whatever. I’m there.
Moussaka is one of the very best ways to eat it, with a top layer of pure beschamel baked into caramelized, custardy deliciousness. But! a good moussaka isn’t just a delivery vehicle for sauce—the bottom layers are savory, spicy, and sweet, with textures and flavors that play perfectly with beschamel’s milky-bland smoothness. It is A Wonderful Thing.
Moussaka is infinitely variable. Here’s one simple version.
Cut three big eggplants lengthwise into 1/2” slices. Salt and let drain for half an hour; rinse under cold running water and squeeze dry. Brush on both sides with oil and broil for 3-4 minutes under a hot broiler, just until the fruit begins to soften and char a little at the edges. Set aside.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a wide, deep skillet. Soften a chopped onion in the oil over medium heat for just a couple of minutes.
Now add two pounds of ground lamb, or a combination of lamb and beef. Turn up the heat and let it brown.
When the meat has lost its surface pink, add four chopped cloves of garlic and salt and stir.
Deglaze the pan with half a cup of dry red wine, and then add half a quart of canned whole tomatoes, with their juice, crushing the tomatoes with your hands as you add them. Add water, if needed, to let the mixture simmer efficiently. Tie a stick of cinnamon, a couple bay leaves, and half a dozen allspice berries in a little bag and dunk in the simmering filling. Simmer for twenty minutes or so, until the liquid has mostly evaporated and the filling is thick and infused with the spices. Taste for salt, pepper, and acid—add a little lemon juice if the flavors need brightening. Set aside.
Melt 1/2 cup of butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When it bubbles, add 1/2 cup of flour and whisk. Cook, whisking constantly, until the flour goes blonde (just two minutes or so).
Add a quart of milk in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Bring the sauce to a boil, still whisking. Take it off the heat.
Stir in a teaspoon of salt and a hearty grating of nutmeg.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Grease a 9x13” baking pan. Layer the bottom with barely-overlapping slices of eggplant, then the meat filling, then another layer of eggplant. Spread the béchamel over all and sprinkle with a handful of grated kefalotyri or pecorino cheese.
Bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes or so, until the topping is firm and spotted with caramelized cheese. Let cool for at least 15-20 minutes before you serve the moussaka.
- Replace the meat with finely chopped mushrooms for veggie moussaka. Or use steel-cut oats and extra liquid, or possibly some cooked lentils.
- Add a layer of sliced boiled potatoes between the meat and the eggplant.
- Add egg yolks to the béchamel for an extra-rich and firm topping: Whisk the egg yolks separately; temper them with a ladleful of hot sauce; whisk them back into the sauce pan off the heat.
- Add a stingy handful of currants to the filling for a little sweetness.